Behind the Scenes with Martin Schoeller

Are you female?

Can you bench press a Cooper Mini?

Does the volume knob your tanning machine go to eleven?

Are you a lighting geek?

If you answered yes to all of those questions, this is your lucky day.

From a documentary on women bodybuilders, a YouTube video of a shoot of Vicki Nixon by Martin Schoeller. Annotated video, after the jump.

And, as with the Annie Shoots the Queen video, I had to pull out the red pencil on this one.

Follow the Bouncing Ball

0:03 - Tarrytown, NY, home of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".

0:04 - 0:11 - How many books have Bill Clinton and Marilyn Manson in them? Not many.

0:43 - Bodybuilder tanning machine now available with rotisserie attachment, sold separately.

1:00 -- Note the paper over the door. Schoeller is building bounce surfaces everywhere. He shoots lights into them for fill and specular highlights.

1:02 - How do I light thee? Let me count the ways... Number one: Overhead beauty dish.

1:03 - Eight-by-ten view camera. (Compared to Greenfield-Sanders, this is a "small-chip" camera.) Also at this mark, you can see the fill/specular heads aiming (well, the one on the left, anyway) which fire off of the paper dropped behind and around the camera.

1:05 - Here's the on-axis paper surfaces. This gets a huge light source from all around the lens axis, effectively making a large soft-box-ring-light sort of thing.

1:12 - There's the key light setup for the face: A strip light on each side and a largish reflector above the eyeline.

1:19 - Put aside the light for a moment and listen. He is helping her get past her pre-planned "smile-for-the-camera" face.

1:23 - 1:35 - Bring her to a neutral expression. Explain why that is better than the big-teeth smile. Then bring some measured warmth back in.

1:38 - "I call it a smirk." I love this. A smirk is happy, confident, revealing -- and everyone knows exactly what you mean when you direct them with that word. It's a partial, no-teeth smile. I am so gonna rip this idea off.

1:42 - Biggie: Schoeller is out of eye contact with the subject, but is still keeping the vibe going with a running, three-way conversation. Don't lose the subject while you are screwing around with your lights and camera.

1:43 - Seriously, look at that light reflecting environment he has created. Ever shoot a photo in a shower stall, or small, white bathroom? You can't go wrong. He just makes that environment out of paper.

1:55 - See that quick glance? He does not look comfy on the front side of the lens. He's got a lot running through his mind right now, yet still keeps the subject interaction going.

1:59 - And there's the other fill-off-the-paper light.

2:01 - On the left side of the vid frame: There is the bottom/fill light for her face. That's a lotta lighting for a torso shot, no?

2:22 - I have people in the audience that tell me when I "flatten out," too...

2:28 - There's the best view of the light wall in the back. He can leave the bottom of the doorway, because he is blocking the light that would have come from there with his body and the camera. No need for paper there. It's a lot of gear and setup, to be sure. But the principle works down at the speedlight end of the scale, too.

2:30 - And there's your background light, gelled.

2:33 - She's not just hot -- she's ready to pass out. The modeling lights on those strips look brutal. Are they quartz lights? I can't imagine he'd do that to her. Still, you have to think she appreciates the free tanning session...

2:42 - Best look yet at the overall frontal light. Can't tell if he is using it, but that head at back-upper-center-right would continue the wrap from the overhead beauty dish. Assuming another on the left, too, if it is being used.

2:44 - Bad: "Stop slouching." Good: "Make yourself really tall, with a long neck."

2:53 to End - Dude is a human motor drive. That's pretty coordinated: Ripping off 8x10 frames without an assistant and keeping a conversation going at the same time.


You can see the results of this series of photos (though not this particular subject) here. I have to say, I am not particularly into this lighting style for torso. Nor an I into the female bodybuilding thing, either.

But I love his close-up studies (hard to just call them "head shots") that follow if you keep clicking through the series. And this video gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the way Schoeller designs his light -- including at least half a dozen things I found very useful.

If you are into annotated lighting vids, the Annie/Queen one is here. And if you want the strip lights without laying out the cash, we have you covered there, too.

So, did you learn anything from this vid? Sound off in the comments.


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Blogger n506 said...

Love that term smirk. I think more than even just being descriptive of a non-teeth smile, the idea of being asked to smirk causes amusement, which does give a very natural slight smile a second later. Look at her eyes at 1:39-1:41. There's an amusement there that's created life in her eyes and the most natural smile. If he'd been shooting with a dslr or 35mm, he'd have nailed it easily. He missed it while swapping frames. Less than a second later her eyes have "died" again, and it's too late.

So often it's important to know what to say to get a reaction, and be ready to nail the shot as you get the reaction.

Like you say though, I'm definately going to be remembering "smirk"! One of those good reaction getting terms!

August 06, 2008 4:34 PM  
Blogger Mat Hayward said...

Interesting style to say the least. Browsing through the images of the bodybuilders I was startled when I came across Andre Agassi's pic. Such a contrast to the ladie's images.


August 06, 2008 4:48 PM  
Blogger Impersonated said...

Haha, that was an awesome video David. Could care less about politics when it comes to photography, at this caliber. I just how all those lights can just throw out all those specular highlights. It seems so random, but it's done so well.

August 06, 2008 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most interesting part of these posts for me is to discover those photographers and their work.

His strong light on those faces is really interesting, and the way it makes those pure colors come out.

However, just my humble opinion, the eyes look terrible, in some cases kind like "sheep" eyes even though the slit is in the other direction. If only there weren't so much catch light in their eyes.

Great to go through that long portrait gallery though. Love the use of a wider angle.

August 06, 2008 5:14 PM  
Anonymous Chuck Espinoza said...

I am not 100% but i think the "strip lights" are kino's and used to pull focus more than anything.

August 06, 2008 6:16 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Great video from a photographer I've admired for a while. His "head shots" are mesmerizing, and I found the bodybuilding shots equally intriguing. What I find interesting in both cases is that he's not out to flatter his subject - there's a surreal quality that becomes much more noticeable in the bodybuilding shots - highlighting the alien-ness of those bodies. Really interesting stuff!

August 06, 2008 6:17 PM  
Anonymous Chuck Espinoza said...

I didn't realize it until after I watched the vid a second time but I may have been trying to replicate Martin's catch light in my most recent shoots. I came across an uncredited photo of Harold Perrineau (Michael on Lost). In the photo he has huge left and right vertical catchlights in his eyes and a great wrap-around lighting pattern. My most recent flicr sets have the results.

August 06, 2008 6:32 PM  
Blogger i.n.galbraith said...

why don't they just make ten higher?

August 06, 2008 6:32 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

love the "goes to 11" spinal tap reference!

August 06, 2008 6:40 PM  
Blogger tschnitzlein said...

Amazing stuff - particularly the headshots that follow after the bodybuilder series.

Schoeller is playing interesting games with perspective and wideangle FOV:

Can anyone reverse-engineer how Schoeller made Prince's face appear so incredibly slim in picture #82, as opposed to Dan Rather in #83 who looks rather square-faced? Both pictures appear somewhat exaggerated. Can anyone tell me how Schoeller might have achieved this effect?

August 06, 2008 7:01 PM  
Anonymous Harry said...

It says "this video no longer available" you can still kind of see it through a grey screen tho. Bummer! Is there a new link or did it just get yanked?

August 06, 2008 9:30 PM  
Blogger Pierre "Vimages" Vignau said...

Impressive stuff. Looks complexe as you say and his continuous contact with the model impressed me. Looking at his work I was particularily impressed with the Henry Kissinger Picture. Light and textures were awesome.

THanks David

August 06, 2008 9:30 PM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

Memserizing is a good word for the bodybuilding shots. I assume he can control perspective/distortion with independent control of the lens and film planes on the 8x10. I saw none, in the gallery, that was flattering. So yeah, he has a style of his own...that makes Angeline Jolie look ordinaire.

August 06, 2008 10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting light, but those body builders scared the life out of me

August 06, 2008 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually just used the word "smirk" during a maternity shoot the other day. I'd seen this video a couple weeks ago...I guess it sunk in. I also used "wry smile" and that seemed to work well, too. "Smart ass grin" on the other hand did not.

August 06, 2008 10:42 PM  
Anonymous Brandon D. said...


That was a truly great learning experience. I felt like I was back in 8th grade, and our teacher, Mr. Hobby, let us watch a video to teach us instead of making us take notes during his own lectures.

Obviously, there's a lot that we can all learn from that video. I did notice that he didn't seem to do any (obvious) metering or polaroiding. I wonder if he already knew where to set things.

I really do love this guy's style...

Thanks, David.

August 07, 2008 12:56 AM  
Blogger Philadelphia Wedding Photographers said...

When I saw the headshots done by Martin Schoeller, I recognized the lighting from the New Jersey Heart Gallery. Martin Schoeller is a photographer for this wonderful organization (as am I).

See more of his work here:

August 07, 2008 1:21 AM  
OpenID oldskoolrudeboy said...

didn't joe mcnally reference something going to 11 recently? was it the SB-900?
i'm a couple of months late, but if i knew, i would've checked out his work at the Beverly Hills Gallery.

August 07, 2008 3:42 AM  
Blogger SilverTreeStudio said...

i've been adoring Martin's portraits from the start

August 07, 2008 4:57 AM  
Anonymous Matt G said...

Any one else annoyed that he doesn't show the photos he's taken in the video, like everyone else seems to?

I was waiting for it at the end but the video just stops.

August 07, 2008 5:16 AM  
Blogger Geoff Smith said...

"2:28 - [...] He can leave the bottom of the doorway,..."

This is interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which is what you say about just not needing bounce there. Perhaps more importantly, he's not using a dark cloth! So the darker things are there (wearing a black t-shirt is not a purely aesthetic choice I think), the better to see the ground glass on the 8x10. Also, if you look at a lot of his work, almost all of them have the two vertical catch lights from the strips in the eyes -- and where's the photographer/camera? Right in the pupil, not reflecting. This matters when your standard print size is 50x60+. He's a master...

August 07, 2008 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Waldo said...


I've noticed the "video no longer available" message occasionally appears on sites that link to YouTube content. Just try again, try reloading the page or go directly to the YouTube page:

video here YouTube

August 07, 2008 1:34 PM  
Blogger marco said...

What I like in his photos is the bokeh: just the eyes are sharp and focused, everything else is not. At the same time, since this effect is omnipresent, it bores me having seen it in each and every shot.

And the bodybuilders are.. well, not my kinda subject. ;)

August 07, 2008 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mini ...Cooper.

August 07, 2008 4:18 PM  
Anonymous Mike Pulcinella said...

Thanks for picking up my video clip! That's from my documentary Beyond the Pain. Hi everyone, I'm filmmaker Mike Pulcinella. I never intended for this clip to be a lighting primer but then I read the shot-by-shot!

I was lucky that Martin was shooting at Vicki's final contest and that he was gracious enough to allow me to shoot him.

I'm also glad that that I found Strobist! What a great blog! I'm sure I'll be returning here many times.

Thanks again for the wonderful comments!


August 14, 2008 4:58 PM  
Anonymous Mike Pulcinella said...

To respond to what Matt G wrote:

"Any one else annoyed that he doesn't show the photos he's taken in the video, like everyone else seems to?

I was waiting for it at the end but the video just stops."

The photos were not published when I was completing the documentary or you can be sure that would have included them! I emailed Martin but they simply were not ready in time.

I must clarifiy that this is not Martin's video and he doesn't have anything to do with the content. All the editorial decisions were mine.

In an epilogue I show a few of the other shots from those sessions but Vicki's pix were still not ready at that time. We had to decide whether to delay the release of the video or proceed. Since the Martin segment was not integral to the story we released the DVD as is.


Mike Pulcinella

August 15, 2008 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi there! Vicki Nixon reading the comments here as I am a newbie in photography myself:) I was hoping that: you can put a LINK back to my website? Its: that would b awesome! thanks so much!
Vicki Nixon IFBB pro BB

August 15, 2008 12:10 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks for stopping by! Your wish is my command. Hot-linked in the post.


August 15, 2008 1:09 PM  
Anonymous Patriciadc said...

I saw Martin's new show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and posted comments about it on my blog, Good show. Martin's were the best of show, the most provoking, the most varied, in my laywoman's opinion. Sincerely, Patriciadc

December 22, 2008 12:02 AM  
Blogger Pablo said...

hey David!

I'm sorry for my english, it's very poor. I come from spain.

So I have some questions to ask you, I hope you'll can help me:
Do you know what are the differences between this lighting diagram(video) and the close-up serie lighting diagram?

-I think he don't use so much lighting points, as the overhead beauty dish , or the two frontal flashes(for the torso&face), is that correct?
-what do you think about the room lighting(white bath enviroment)?
-and what can you tell me about the gelatines??

you can contact me in this e-mail:

thank you so much!!

Pablo Axpe

February 10, 2010 3:55 PM  
Blogger Pablo said...

hey David!

I'm sorry for my english, it's very poor. I come from spain.

So I have some questions to ask you, I hope you'll can help me:
Do you know what are the differences between this lighting diagram(video) and the close-up serie lighting diagram?

-I think he don't use so much lighting points, as the overhead beauty dish , or the two frontal flashes(for the torso&face), is that correct?
-what do you think about the room lighting(white bath enviroment)?
-and what can you tell me about the gelatines??

you can contact me in this e-mail:

thank you so much!!

Pablo Axpe

February 10, 2010 3:56 PM  

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